Posted February 6, 2022 by Mark Perna
Rethinking how your organization treats employees who choose to work remotely is more than just the right thing to do. It’s a huge strategic advantage. Mark’s article, “Why It’s Time To Shatter The Zoom Ceiling And Embrace Remote Work,” published at Forbes.com on February 1, 2022.
As most of us now know all too well, the pandemic dramatically changed how we worked. Remote work became the norm—and continues to remain the preferred working option for millions of workers, especially working parents whose kids are also at home.
Even though the pandemic through its variants continues to loom, many companies have begun to make the transition back to working in person. Sometimes, that shift has been mandatory. But other organizations have embraced the notion that remote work is here to stay in the so-called “hybrid” workplace.
The challenge, though, is that while organizations may have pivoted to allowing remote work, their outdated management policies and approaches threaten to leave remote workers behind.
“Unfortunately, remote workers face many obstacles when trying to climb the career ladder,” says Dr. Elora Voyles, an industrial-organizational psychologist at TINYpulse. Voyles calls this new dynamic the “Zoom Ceiling,” arguing that it threatens the career trajectories of remote workers, especially women and workers from underrepresented groups.
I asked Voyles to share more about why the Zoom Ceiling has evolved and what employers and employees can do to shatter it.
One of the most prominent barriers remote workers face is the simple fact that because they are “out of sight,” they are also “out of mind.”
“Proximity and recency bias are playing a major role in who is getting promoted when it comes to an in-person versus remote employee,” says Voyles. “It’s simply harder for a remote worker to get face time and have those casual office conversations with their leader or manager. An in-person worker is physically closer and can easily bring up conversations regarding growth, but a remote worker has to deliberately schedule a Zoom meeting to do so.”
The other factor Voyles says hurts remote workers is the perception among many managers that they are somehow less motivated than their peers who trek into the office.
She points to the example of David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, who called remote work an “aberration.”
“Do you think he’s going to promote a remote worker?” asks Voyles. “Probably not. This could be because unless he can see ‘productivity,’ then it’s not happening. In his mind at least.”
Voyles says that a remote worker who chooses their work arrangement over in-person work may also be viewed as “less of a team player” and less able to assume leadership positions due to concerns about their ability to supervise direct reports from a remote location.
Rather than risk alienating or losing remote workers, Voyles thinks it’s time for corporate leaders like Solomon to rethink some of the traditional tenets of management.
One area she suggests needs a revamp is changing how organizations measure success in ways that foster what she calls a Results Oriented Work Environment (or ROWE). To do that, managers need to be willing to tackle the difficult task of handing over autonomy and trust.
Managers should also increase and define communication and performance expectations, especially with remote workers.
“Is success clocking in from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and filling those hours with useless tasks or is it completing projects and driving revenue?” Voyles asks. “Both leaders and employees need to fully understand their role and then exceed those expectations.”
That’s also why it’s also critical to abandon outdated in-person performance evaluations for remote workers.
“Assessing remote work performance requires new tools and metrics to measure success,” says Voyles. “We hear so much about how the world of work has changed for good, you can’t keep measuring the same way and expect the system to be fair.”
Another important dynamic to consider when it comes to changing the rules for remote workers is that for some, working from home is a necessity.
For example, statistically women bear more childcare and home responsibilities, and remote work flexibility can allow better management of both of those demands. Voyles points to a survey she conducted called the State of Employee Engagement Q3 2021 that found women were less favorable about returning to the office.
The catch is that if managers feel that women are putting other responsibilities before work, these women will soon find themselves blocked by the Zoom Ceiling. “Although both children and work are important, a manager may not fully appreciate remote workers’ ability to successfully juggle work and home responsibilities,” says Voyles.
Similar dynamics apply when it comes to workers of color, who may prefer to work remotely to avoid the very real presence of racism and microaggressions in the physical workplace. “It has to do with psychological safety,” says Voyles.
Workers with disabilities are another category of workers who are likely to opt for remote work as an accommodation for their disability.
A Zoom meeting puts everyone on the same page, in the same size boxes, with the same access to communication. Communication during remote meetings also tends to be more formal while meetings are likely to be recorded—which decreases the potential for microaggressions to occur.
“Simply put, the playing field has been leveled,” says Voyles. “Who wouldn’t want to feel safer from racism or xenophobia if it was present? Remote work allows just that.”
As demand for remote work surges from a significant portion of their workforce, Voyles offers some tips for employers to embrace change in the virtual workplace—and ultimately help the organization better compete in the War for Talent.
1. Survey your employees
“Listening is the number one tool in creating actionable, employee-driven change,” says Voyles. “Your employees will like that they have a voice and a stake in what’s to come. This could boost your retention, especially during the Great Resignation.” Plus, Voyles says that her employee engagement survey found that 44% of HR and business leaders reported using remote work offerings as a recruitment tool.
2. Don’t just say remote work is allowed
“Define what that means,” says Voyles. “Who is allowed to work from home? Set expectations: specify how many days a week your employees can work remotely. Explain how performance will be assessed. Communicate goals: outline specific goals and the steps for accomplishing the outlined goals.”
3. Focus on culture and connection for new employees
“Remote work is productive; however, remote workers may be less integrated into the company culture,” says Voyles. “Set up times for team building and mentoring to support culture and connection.” She also emphasizes that you shouldn’t skip scheduling one-on-one meetings with remote workers. “New remote employees will especially need regular mentoring and coaching,” she says. “It takes a deliberate effort to keep remote workers connected, however, the time investment spent with remote workers is worth it in the long run.”
The lesson here is that the more organizations can embrace policies and cultural norms that make it easier for remote workers to thrive, the more they help the organization empower the kind of top talent that other organizations might be holding back. Shattering the Zoom Ceiling isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s also an incredible strategic advantage.